Virtual Reality in the Language Classroom

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What is it?

Do you ever get carried away when you come across a super cool piece of technology and immediately start thinking how you could use in in your ESL classroom?. Aren’t we all as teachers ready to embrace shiny, new ideas and technologies? I know I am. Developments within the last few years have now enabled Virtual Reality headsets to be available to the general public. One of the most popular and reasonably priced options on the market currently is the Google Cardboard. This self-assembly cardboard mask is used in conjunction with a Smartphone to produce a 360° Virtual Reality environment. The design is open source so you can downloaded and build it yourself or buy it from Google for around £15.00. Once this is done all you have to do is download a compatible app onto your phone, insert it into Google Cardboard and away you go!

Does it have practical use in the language classroom?

When I first saw this relatively inexpensive way of bringing Virtual Reality into the classroom, I was really impressed and immediately thought it was something that learners in an ESL classroom could use There are a number of apps available to download and use in addition to  media via YouTube. The content of these apps is not aimed at language learners, but allows viewers to discover different places in the world,   have virtual tours of museums and historical sites as well as observing historical events. Therefore if this medium is to be used in language learning classroom it is left to the teacher to identify how best to use it.

Very little information currently exists as to whether it is being used or how it could be engaged for language learning.My own thoughts are that it could be used as part of a blended learning approach to support what is being taught in the traditional classroom, perhaps as part of a writing task, learners take a tour and then write an information leaflet about the sights they have seen. These could then be used as part of a larger class project, for example a museum or travel guide. Learners could  also give short presentations on historical, sports or current events they have observed. This would allow a range of skills to be used throughout the activity such as observation, note taking, drafting the presentation and finally giving it to the class. It could be argued that this use of the technology allows learners to be more active participants in their learning, choosing what they would like to observe/report and therefore having more interest than constantly relying on ESL textbooks.

Advantages

Cost – Not excessively expensive and it can be made yourself – Maybe making them could be part of a class task, following instructions to build the glasses.

Novelty – learners tend to engage and be more stimulated by something new. This definitely has the novelty factor.

Apps – The majority of apps are free or available through other platforms such as YouTube.

Allows learners choice in what they would like to look at, discover and talk or write about.

Disadvantages

Cost – as a single unit the cost is relatively low, however for a larger class it may be prohibitively expensive.

Smartphone – not every learner may have access to a Smartphone.

Durability – just how long will a cardboard mask last in a classroom?

Summary

To summarise, I believe that VR technology is a really interesting and forward thinking technology to use in the classroom. We are at a very early stage of it’s use in the language learning classroom, but never the less, I believe this is an exciting and forward thinking development in the ESL classroom. What do you think? Please post your comments.

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5 thoughts on “Virtual Reality in the Language Classroom”

  1. That is amazing! Cannot believe I hadn’t heard of this before! Definitely something worth pursuing in the language classroom. You could turn these virtual tours into a game – the students each ‘visit’ a different place and then have to describe where they have been while the others have to guess. Not only is it fun, interactive and helps the students practice their language it also teaches them more about the world. All these fabulous places just waiting to be discovered. The future of Virtual Reality is looking very bright. Have a look at the article below. It talks about the development of a new virtual reality specific for language learners. Very exciting!

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    1. Thanks for the link Gabby. The Immerse Me Virtual Reality looks like a really interesting development, especially as it can be used in conjunction with the Google Cardboard! It will be interesting to see how the finished product looks and operates. I would also be really interested to know how interactive it will be. The alpha version on their website seems to suggest a very transactional/situational approach with learners responding to prompts and having little choice in the responses they give. However, this is a programme that’s still in development and I do think they are onto something.

      One feature that I did like was that they mention teaching sociolinguistic and sociocultural skills as part of the course, an important and often overlooked aspect of language teaching! Thanks again for leaving a comment and sending me the link, it’s definitely one I will be following closely!

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  2. This looks really interesting! I have to admit, I’m a bit hesitant when it comes to technology in the classroom because there’s so much overlap with what we can already do with traditional resources. I agree that novelty is always an appealing factor to people though, and that’s above all what would make this a great addition. When I saw the video posted above, I immediately thought of the old BBC language courses that kind of allowed the same experience except the places weren’t right in front of you, but on screen.

    I’m interested to know, do you think this kind of technology would help or hinder anxious learners? i.e. would practicing in real life-ish situations boost their confidence or do you think there’s a risk of them getting too reliant on the bubble the VR might provide?

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  3. I think your observation on the similarities and overlap between traditional classroom activities and some of the technology currently available for language learning is correct. Sometimes I think we can become carried away with the novelty and the idea that “this is the future” when we see new things, but on further investigation realise we could have done the same thing with a text book in half the time! This is certainly something I have personally encountered in teaching. For me it comes down to the role the teacher plays in selecting suitable and engaging materials for learners and I think that sometimes novelty does come into that, which could also I think feed into the second question about learner anxiety.

    VR has been used traditionally in psychological therapy to address ptsd and anxiety. I haven’t been able to find any research which specifically links VR-SLL-Anxiety in a classroom situation (perhaps an interesting area for research!) however, a study by Macedonia et al. (2014) used Avatars to teach language learners and their study found that Avatars were just as effective at teaching language as humans. Surely then it could be suggested that VR would be a more suitable environment to reduce learner performance anxiety in the initial stages of language learning.

    This does raise the question you noted about becoming reliant on the “bubble” of VR technology and I completely agree; again, I think part of the teachers responsibility is to guide and prevent learners becoming overly reliant on any one form of language learning. In this case at some point they are going to have to take those Google Glasses off and actually interact with a human!

    References

    http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01280/full#B8

    Macedonia, M., Groher, I., and Roithmayr, F. (2014). Intelligent virtual agents as language trainers facilitate multilingualism. Front. Psychol. 5:295. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00295

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  4. It is very interesting to see this introduced! Could be interesting to see how it could be adapted for language learning. Yes, students do react well to something that is “new and shiny.” Though as teachers, it is important not to simply “muck around” with something simply because we are attracted to that new and shiny thing! I do believe it will end up being useful. Lets face it, can make “realia” much more real and interactional!

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